Livi’s three-game unbeaten run came to an end but not before they had given runaway leaders Hearts a real fright in an enthralling match at the Energy Assets Arena.
The Jambos arrived in West Lothian looking to open up a 19-point lead over Rangers at the top of the Championship while Livi went in search of an unlikely win that would have lifted them off the foot of the table and up to eighth. Lions boss Mark Burchill made just one change to his side after Tuesday’s goalless draw at home to Alloa, Ibra Sekajja coming in for his full debut in place of Nejc Praprotnik.
The Lions started brightly without forcing too many clear-cut chances but it was the visitors who broke the deadlock inside four minutes as man-mountain striker Gennaro Zeefuik strolled in from the left hand side and placed a shot perfectly across Jamieson and into the corner of the net. The goal gave Hearts a lift and they began to enjoy a good spell of pressure. Callum Paterson hit the byline and fired in a low cross which Burton O’Brien did well to clear. O’Brien then picked up the game’s first yellow card for a foul on James Keatings.
Livi began to force their way back into the game and had a soft penalty shout as Keaghan Jacobs fired in a shot which seemed to brush the hand of a Hearts defender but the contact appeared accidental and nothing was given. Jambo Miguel Pallardo then let fly with a stunning volley from the edge of the box which whistled just over the bar. Jordan White picked up the Lions’ second booking of the match as ref Brian Colvin, who was suffering an off day to say the least, harshly adjudged the Livi man to have taken a dive.
The Lions had another, stronger penalty shout as Hearts keeper Neil Alexander appeared to impede White after the two had challenged for a high ball but the ref made no decision, before booking Kyle Jacobs for a tackle that stopped a Hearts breakaway. The Livi players were riled by their perceived injustice and piled the pressure on, forcing a mix up in the Hearts defence which Keaghan almost took advantage of, only for Jordan McGhee to intercept. Goalscorer Zeefuik was then lucky to escape a yellow card for a late challenge on Jason Talbot which left the Livi captain in a heap. Inexplicably, ref Colvin then booked Sekajja minutes later for an entirely innocuous challenge on Jamie Walker.
Livi were enjoying a decent spell and forced another decent effort when Keaghan played in Danny Mullen but his curled effort was straight at Alexander. There was a moment of real controversy soon after as Talbot swung his right foot in to clear a high ball and, after making contact with the ball, his standing foot slipped and his considerable momentum carried his other foot up and into the face of Hearts winger Sam Nicholson. The vast majority of referees would have deemed it a red card offence but Colvin only brandished a yellow, much to the fury of the Hearts fans as well as boss Robbie Neilson. A bit of handbags followed, during which Zeefuik appeared to grab Keaghan around the throat out of the view of the officials, with Declan Gallagher and Hearts’ Alim Ozturk the latest names into Colvin’s book. The half time whistle went shortly after and the sides headed for the dressing rooms with Hearts still holding a 1-0 lead.
Nicholson was unable to return for the second half following the incident with Talbot, with Kenny Anderson coming on for his debut before the restart. The game continued at the same frenetic pace with Livi continuing to press and they were rewarded for their efforts on 52 minutes when they drew level. A long throw from Fordyce was bundled down by White and Craig Sives was on hand to slam the ball home from close range to send the home fans wild.
Hearts responded and Zeefuik let fly with a powerful drive from distance but the ball flew comfortably over the bar. Callum Paterson then picked up the game’s eighth booking as he found his way into the ref’s book for dissent. Livi sensed the league leaders were rattled and cranked up the pressure, Keaghan sending in a cross from the right which White was unlucky not to bundle home from close range. The Jambos still maintained a threat though and Darren Jamieson did well to hold on to a powerful Paterson header from a debatable corner. Livi went straight up the other end and Sekajja brushed off his man but could only fire his shot straight at Alexander.
The game was becoming thrillingly end-to-end and Walker was the next to try his luck from distance with a shot from 25 yards which flew wide before White and Kyle linked up well to play in Sekajja but his touch was too heavy and Alexander gathered. Hearts made their second change soon after, replacing Keatings with Billy King. Keaghan was then on hand to make a great interception as Hearts try to create an opening. The Lions then made their first change as White was replaced by Myles Hippolyte.
For all Livi’s pressure, they were sucker-punched on 82 minutes when a low cross was swung in from the right and debutant Anderson wandered in unmarked, stooping to head the cross past Jamieson’s despairing dive. Mark Burchill responded by throwing on Praprotnik for O’Brien but he barely had time to make an impact before Hearts snatched a third on the break when a pass in behind found Walker and he steadied himself before firing a low shot across Jamieson and into the corner of the net to all but wrap up the points. Burchill made his final change in response to the goal, sending on Scott Pittman for his debut in place of Sekajja.
To their credit, Livi kept pressing and were awarded a penalty deep into stoppage time when Hippolyte ran clean through but was brought down in the box by Brad McKay, earning the Hearts man a red card. Kyle Jacobs sent Alexander the wrong way from the spot with the last kick of the game to give the scoreline a more accurate reflection as the leaders claimed a 3-2 win.
So despite a gallant performance, the Lions suffered an agonising defeat which means they are still without a home league win since September. Next up for the Lions is a second consecutive clash with the Jambos, this time at Tynecastle.